To the unfamiliar, meal planning (and prepping) can seem like a confusing, overwhelming task. One that isn’t entirely attainable, let alone worth it. Trust me, I get it. Remember that, not so long ago, I dove headfirst into this health & fitness journey by following a generalized meal plan down to the T of nut butter. But when the eight-weeks of detailed daily menus were up, I got
a little a lot… freaked. What I found was, I got really darn good at following a plan, but didn’t learn the first thing about creating my own…
It’s easy to feel intimidated by the entirety of the process – the planning, the shopping, the prepping, and omg, the dishes! And if we don’t understand what role meal plans, or heck! meals in general, play in our personal pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, how can we possibly know where to begin?
So let’s get back to basics, and down to science.
You know that phrase, “you are what you eat”? It’s literally true. Food contains biological information on a cellular level. Meaning, every function in the body – every movement, every thought, every feeling, physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise – is impacted by diet. Yes, really. From hormone production, to energy levels, to organ and brain function, to digestion, to body composition, food serves as an instruction manual for how your body should perform and adapt.
So, if we are what we eat, and we eat what we prep, and we prep what we plan… you see right where I’m headed with this.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.
Long before the tupperware are filled, before the oven is preheated, even before the grocery list is made, nutritional success relies on one thing: The Plan.
So what is meal planning, really?
It’s as simple as this: creating a guideline for the meals you’d like to consume in a week.
It can be a master color-coded binder of recipes (grouped alphabetical order by meal type, of course), a list on your iPhone, or a white board on your fridge. It can be a full blown seven-day menu or a few week-day lunches. It can be entirely home-cooked, or include take out and dinner dates. It can be for your eyes (and belly) only, or feed a family of four. It can be completely or partially prepped. TL;DR: It’s flexible and adaptable, and it has to work for you.
Follow up actions include: grocery shopping, meal prep, and acting on the plan. But today, we’re just focusing on step one: plan.
Meal Plan How To
Commit & Make It Work.
Are you a handwritten gal? A digital queen? Whatever your preferred method, get a space ready to outline your plan, on your terms. Don’t go trying to plan, shop, and prep in one day – give yourself time to get inspired and build out a menu that caters to your cravings just as much as it fuels your body and mind. I start the planning process on Thursday, when I scour the web for drool-worthy dishes (more on that below!). After the plan is finalized on Friday, I hit the grocery store on Saturday and take to the kitchen for prep on Sunday.
Pro tip: there’s no magic number when it comes to meals planned in a week, portioned & prepped on a Sunday, or dishes eaten in a day. There is simply what works for you. Experiment!
Just like my nutrition and fitness journey, my planning practice is always evolving. No matter the method, I like to lay everything out on a big ol’ week-at-a-glance like the above, whether printed or digital.
I also have used a custom daily planner such as Plum Paper, which is great for marking up your plan with real-deal accounts of what actually went down (into your belly 😉 )
Consider the Big Picture.
First things first, determine how many meals you’d like to plan. If planning multiple meals across seven days feels overwhelming or totally unfeasible for your lifestyle, scale it back. I personally plan five meals a day Monday – Friday and leave weekends totally open for social plans, recipe testing, and fridge-clean out. With my Leftovers for Lunch approach (more on that below) my planning week starts with Sunday night supper. Next, make note of any obligations, events, or life happenings that impact your plan. Dinner ressies with pals on Friday? Fill it in. Double header SoulCycle class on Wednesday? Consider some extra carbs. Lunch meeting on Monday? Mark it. Sorting your schedule prevents over-spending and food waste! Don’t forget to factor in your environment. Desk-side lunches call for dishes that are easy to transport, reheat, and eat straight from the tupperware, while meals from home may allow for a little more prep and plating. And finally, check your fridge, freezer, and pantry for anything that may be piling up.
Pro-tip: There’s little point to a plan if isn’t practical for you to put into practice.
Identify one mouth-watering want. I like to begin planning by catering to a craving because it promotes Intuitive Eating within planning by asking us to prioritize our preferences over practicality. But don’t worry, we will get practical! Just keep scrollin’ 😉
Pinterest, the ‘gram, and cookbooks are overflowing with endless entrees, sides, and snacks. Some of my favorite key words to search are: Paleo, Whole30, Vegan, “Light”, Healthy, and Meal Prep. And remember, recipes are inspiration, not bible! Since I don’t identify with one specific dietary approach, I modify, swap, and supplement to meet my personal preferences. Cauliflower “Mac” n’ Cheese catch your eye? What protein matches your vibes? Avocados finally ripe and in season? They make delicious toppings for taco-bowls! Let the inspiration flow, sister. Once you’ve got your craving identified, use it to build your menu using the rest of the tips below.
Peep my Pinterest for hundreds of healthy recipes!
Pro-tip: Check the weather! If you’re lacking meal-spiration, the local forecast might help you cue into your cravings. Cold fronts call for hearty, big-batch bowls while warmer temps beg for crisp green salads.
Allow your Meal Plan to adapt (or help you create!) some nutritious and delicious traditions, and fill those items in first. Perhaps it’s a favorite weekend breaky, a Sunday night supper, or something as simple as your post-workout fuel. Getting what you know down on paper (or in the Cloud) first will help those empty grids look a bit more full and leave you feeling confident to stomach the task of plotting the rest of the plan.
Plan in Patterns.
Keep it simple, sister. You can have your flavor variety and a lil repetition, too! Pick out two options of each meal and alternate them every other day, keep breakfasts and snacks the same across the board, or – my personal fave – repurpose dinner leftovers for lunches. These tips allow for just enough variety without any complication.
Healthy Hint: From my experience, the alternating technique is best suited for a solo-planner, and the leftovers technique is best suited for a household.
This is my favorite meal planning step because, with a little repetition, the week goes from lookin’ hungry to mighty full just like that.
Pro-tip: Start by identifying your main, and then select your sides!
Use Your Resources.
Remember when I said (wrote?) we would get practical? This is it. Don’t forget to check your fridge, pantry, and freezer for any perishable produce or piling protein! This is key to planning on a budget and minimizing waste.
I identify perishable items reaching their time-stamp, and take inventory of what’s piling up in my fridge and pantry. Use these ingredients as inspiration for you menu with a little help from the next tip…
The most efficient of meal plans make haulin’ on a budget possible by identifying and utilizing overlapping ingredients wherever possible. It’s especially beneficial when recipes call for small portions of perishable produce (“handful of spinach,” anyone?) or to clear out some items building up in the fridge.
Can you spot some of my overlaps?
Mo’ Macros, Less Problems.
The key to filling and satisfying meals that maintain stable energy levels all day long (and please the palate to boot!) is a complete macro profile. That’s a serving of protein, carbs, and fat in every. single. meal. (Unless you follow a timed nutrition approach for post-workout recovery, but that’s a whole other post). Hold up! You don’t need to crunch numbers, weigh ingredients, and scan barcodes. You simply need to know this: each macronutrient has a unique role within the body that is best applied and utilized when other macros are present.
Pro tip: a meal without a serving of fat is likely to leave you feeling less satisfied, less satiated, and even lethargic… aka ~*hangry*~
Check out these tip sheets for planning a well rounded and perfectly portioned meal!
Mix it Up!
Nutrition is exponentially more than numbers of calories or percentages of macronutrients. It’s a combination of quality, source, micronutrients (all those vitamins and minerals!), and of course, preference! The most nutritious of diets are robust and chock full of variety. When planning your meals – daily, weekly, and big-picture beyond – strive to “eat the rainbow” principle with diverse ingredients in each dish, from protein sources to seasonal veggies and everything in between.
This may take a little practice, but you can start to identify patterns within your plans through reflective analysis and use them to plan a balanced day. For example, maybe you notice you do best with only one serving of dairy per day, or maybe your palate prefers to have a unique protein source for each meal.
Document, Rinse, Repeat.
Don’t toss your plans once the last of the prep is gone! Document your favorite dishes and combinations for future inspiration. Make note of what worked for you and what didn’t, what left you feeling full, what satisfied you, and when you deviated from the plan. Anything to make future you say, “Thank you!”
Pro tip: Identify 3-5 “go-to” recipes for each meal for times when planning feels uninspired or all consuming.
Meal Planning Quick Tips
- Make it work for you! Digital, hand-written, full week of eats, or workweek lunches, how and how much you plan is up to you. The thing is, it has to be favorable, feasible, flexible if it’s going to do the job of saving time, stress, and money.
- Think big (picture). Before you plan, account for meetings, events, and circumstances – from weather to eating environment – to identify your needs.
- Plan theme nights – flavor profiles or culinary concepts like Taco Tuesday or Mediterranean Monday not only add some spice to your planning, but it makes conceptualizing complete dishes simple and fun!
- Discover your prep personality and plan with it in mind. If you are the Batch Prep-ster, casseroles and stews will be your BFF. If you’re the Mix n’ Match Maker, try prepping individual ingredients and rehEATing them in different ways throughout the week – identify 2 proteins, 3 fibrous sides, 2 starches, and 2 fat sources. Then use your Staple Stock up to add spices and sauce to bring it all together in one bowl.
- Get practical, save some cash, and avoid waste by checking your resources and using overlapping ingredients.
- Use my quick guides to build a meal plan that has a complete nutrient profile in each meal for ultimate satisfaction, satiety, and performance.
- Keep it simple, baby! RepEAT dishes day to day and week to week and find your perfect balance of variety and manageable meal plan.
Next up, we’re covering shopping, prepping, portioning, and packing!